"Going to the Mountains is Going Home": Constructing Early Twentieth-Century American Wilderness and National Parks
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The interest for this thesis stemmed from existing critical discussions of the difference between the landscapes demarcated by the words “wilderness” and “wildness.” For example, in Walden, Henry David Thoreau pointedly uses the word “wild,” rather than “wilderness” to describe his surroundings at Walden Pond. This sparked critical discussions about the landscape of mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts, and the ways in which that landscape would or would not qualify as “wilderness.” This thesis, then, takes up similar questions: What is the difference between “wildness” and “wilderness?” Can “wilderness” be given a concrete definition, or is the definition always changing based on cultural viewpoints? How do national parks protect “wilderness?” Or, do they even protect “wilderness” at all? The thesis then moves into an interdisciplinary approach toward attempting to understand the American fascination with wilderness and the American relationship with national parks that stems from that fascination. In order to make an attempt at answering these questions, this thesis incorporates three areas of historical research, before bringing all lines of research together into a final argument. The first section looks at the history of “wilderness” as a cultural concept: the development of the word and its connotations in Europe, the ways in which the word was applied to the American landscape as immigrants from Europe settled in North America, and the ways in which the understanding of “wilderness” has changed into an idealized form. The second section considers the history of American national parks, and how tourism has functioned in the process of creating the national parks. Then, the third section examines the government documents that created the National Park Service in 1916, and the ways in which the creation of the National Park Service changed both American national parks and the American “wilderness” ideal. Finally, the last section brings these lines of inquiry together in a study of 1916 issues of the Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, and Harper’s Weekly, which give insight into the ways in which the American public regarded wilderness and national parks at the time of the establishment of the National Park Service.